The dean who dedicated her career to removing barriers to teaching

Lynne McKenna, University of Sunderland teacher training guru

The esteem teachers were held in during Covid has disappeared

Lynne McKenna, Dean of Education and Society at the University of Sunderland, has a formidable work ethic. She “easily” puts in 70 hours a week (she’s been up for four hours already by the time I’ve crawled out of bed for our breakfast meeting).

It shows, too. She’s been instrumental in helping to steer government policies aimed at boosting teacher numbers.

She received an MBE last year for services to education, which she said came as a “surprise” given she’s also never held back from criticising the Department for Education over policies she disagrees with (but more of that later).

Blocked from teaching

When McKenna told her vice chancellor she planned to retire this August, she said: “I was very pleased to see him looking decidedly disappointed, but we both know that I am not irreplaceable.”

Much of her drive is attributed to a love of the profession and removing the kinds of barriers to becoming a teacher that she once faced.

As a little girl she would force her friends to play ‘schools’ and was “always the teacher”. But at 15, her hopes of becoming one were crushed when her school careers advisor pointed out she lacked the required maths GCE to do so.

She “wasn’t even put in for” maths at her secondary modern school in Jarrow, South Tyneside, because “it was felt I wouldn’t pass”. The advisor suggested to McKenna’s receptionist mum and engineer dad that their daughter train to be a nursery and primary classroom assistant instead.

“The next thing I knew I was sitting an entrance exam to become a nursery nurse – without even knowing what one was.”

But McKenna’s teaching skills didn’t go unnoticed at the schools she worked for. “Every headteacher would ask, why aren’t you a teacher?”

After four years, she began studying three evenings a week at South Tyneside College for her GCE maths and a higher education access course while working full-time. But she said: “If someone had helped me at 15, I could’ve done it then. To have been limited by one tiny qualification was such a shame.”

Lynne McKennas graduation

Going global

She became “the archetypal swot”. After qualifying as a teacher from the University of Sunderland, on her first day primary teaching in South Shields she applied for a Master’s degree in education at Newcastle University.

Years later, on her first day as senior lecturer at Northumbria University, she started a part-time doctorate at Durham University.

During the same period, she worked as an advisory teacher, a family numeracy co-ordinator, and then as a curriculum development officer for South Tyneside Council.

McKenna joined Sunderland in 2015 as head of the school of education, and was made dean in 2018.

She’s used her communication line to the DfE to help remove unnecessary barriers to teaching for others ever since. “My whole life has been dedicated to that cause,” she says.

Trainees previously had to pass skills tests to prove maths and English competency for qualified teacher status (QTS), which “seemed nonsensical” to McKenna at a time of rising teacher shortages.

She pushed DfE on the issue, and shared with officials the work her university had done showing how even some trainees with maths degrees were “finding it difficult” to pass the tests, partly “because of the time factor involved”.

They were scrapped shortly after in 2019.

McKenna also set her sights on facilitating wannabe teachers living overseas to train, too, through what became known as the International Qualified Teacher Status programme (IQTS).

On a 2016 visit to PGCE programmes her university was running in partnership with international schools in Dubai and Hong Kong, she noted how most trainees were the educated wives of expat bankers and oil company managers.

These ladies were helpers in their children’s schools who in many cases were “doing the job of teacher”, but without being able to get QTS.

Last year, Sunderland became one of the first five providers piloting IQTS, to “export [England’s] excellence in initial teacher training” across the globe. The university trained over half (41) the 80 teachers enrolled on the course.

Sunderland’s programme follows its campus-based PGCE, the difference being that learning happens online. The students, from Asia, the Middle East and increasingly Europe, get support from a Sunderland academic and a school-based mentor. And in-country tutors are employed to oversee these mentors.

Another 19 providers have signed up to the scheme since the pilot, and McKenna believes there could be more than 25 in the market by the end of this year.

“To have that impact globally is huge,” she added. “It’s very dear to me.”

Lynne Mckenna

Review mayhem

But McKenna has rebelled, too. She was one of many to challenge the initial teacher training market review, which compelled every provider to apply for reaccreditation based on new standards. It followed a government report rallying against those peddling “folk pedagogies” and “neuromyths”, which was widely seen as another attack on ‘the blob’ of left-leaning educationalists (including universities).

She tried in vain to persuade school leaders to speak up against the proposals. They were “absolutely on their knees” after the pandemic, and lacked the time.

She believes the review was “very badly timed” given “the recruitment crisis was evident as soon as we emerged from the pandemic”, and that the policy has made the crisis worse.

Entrants to initial teacher training dropped from 36,159 in 2021-22 to 26,955 in 2023-24. Around 60 of the 240 providers did not get re-accredited in 2022. Nearly four in five of those not accredited were rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted at the time.

McKenna finds it “baffling” that these providers were “not accredited because they hadn’t fulfilled criteria in a paper exercise”.

One of those was Durham University, which had been a teacher training provider since the early nineteenth century and was rated ‘outstanding’. While some snubbed providers formed partnerships with other universities to continue providing training (Durham for instance joined with Newcastle), McKenna claims many “just pulled out” altogether.

She also fed back to DfE the time it took her team to provide the documentation for reaccreditation, which “instead could’ve been spent on teacher recruitment activity, going out to sixth forms and colleges … we’ve not been able to do that.”

Lynne McKenna

Mentor woes

Mentoring is now crucial to training up the next pipeline of teachers, but the exodus from the profession is making it harder to find those mentors. McKenna is seeing some schools “doubling up” classes with “50 children in a hall”.

“A lot” of secondaries have told McKenna’s team, “’we haven’t enough teachers to teach our children. How can we release them for your mentoring?’”

The lack of specialist teachers now working in schools is also a barrier. Some are making do with non-specialists, such as PE teachers teaching maths.

“We’ve got very little chance of recruiting to business, physics, modern foreign languages, design and technology and RE, because in some cases there’s nobody in schools with that expertise to mentor those trainees.”

To “get trainees into schools”, the university has started sending its own staff in to provide mentoring. “It’s a cost we’re having to bear.”

A drastic solution

Lynne McKenna

Sunderland has the largest cohort of teacher trainees in the North East, with 879 last year. It had 1,033 in 2021.

McKenna has told the DfE in “a million plus meetings”, and shadow education secretary Bridget Philipson (a Sunderland MP), to “be brave” and abolish tuition fees for teacher trainees.

“At this point, we need a drastic solution”.

For the last two years Sunderland has also been “20 or 30 below where we normally are” for primary recruits, which was “unheard of” pre Covid.

“That’s a worrying trend. If we can’t recruit primary teachers, that’s a sign the profession itself isn’t seen as attractive.”

It was a different story when McKenna qualified as a teacher. Her grandmother “couldn’t believe we had a school mistress in the family. It was seen as this huge achievement.”

Bad news stories over strikes and teacher pay have not helped, and McKenna believes the “esteem teachers were held in during the pandemic seems to have disappeared”.

“It’s quite a helpless feeling when you’ve got teachers in their early 50s taking early retirement. We’re seeing a lot of that.”

McKenna is retiring at 60, but not because she has any less love for her job. She looks back at her 33-year education career without regrets.

“I’ve loved every second. It’s such a privilege to work in education.”

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